In summer, plants have already bloomed and the sweet scent of flowers fill the air. However, there is one particular sweet scent coming from a Trumansburg greenhouse that means something different. It means several pitcher plants are attempting to attract small insects and, pending on their size, small mammals as well. These plants in question are nepenthes, or pitcher plants.
A pitcher plant is a carnivorous plant that lures prey by emitting a sweet smell from inside its pitcher, which is filled with a viscoelastic liquid that dissolves any prey that fall into it. These plants are primarily found in the tropical islands of the South Pacific Ocean.
Ryan Georgia is a horticulturist and owner of Native Exotics, an online plant shop with a greenhouse in Trumansburg that deals specifically in nepenthes and other plants. His interest in plants began as a child when a home economics teacher introduced him to Mary Alyce Kobler, who managed the Boyce Thompson Institute research greenhouses at Cornell University. For five summers, he worked with her and graduate students at the Kenneth Post Laboratories and the Boyce Thompson Institute, helping them with their graduate projects. This planted the seed, so to speak, and inspired him to continue the work. As he got older, a trip to the island of Borneo inspired him to start the business once he returned.
“When I came back, I decided to start nursery, and that was six or seven years ago,” Georgia said. “I remember coming back and buying the greenhouse, to my partner's chagrin at that point, without making any plans. I sort of had an idea, a dream, and just started from there. It started primarily on eBay—that’s where the business really took place. Over time, it would become a primarily online business all over the United States. I currently have a website and an auction page, currently.”
Georgia also operates a plant tissue cultivation lab, meaning some of the plants found in his greenhouse are nepenthes clones. He does this to reduce poaching of the plants from their wild habitats, something that has become a constant threat to their survival. The poaching of these plants can be compared to the collectability of orchids, which are protected by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
“They are poached, and in some cases go for a ton of money,” Georgia said. “More often than not, the plants are purchased from second or third parties from the poachers at a much lower amount for the people who are benefiting. But, these are the people suffering from economic disparity or really not getting anything anywhere. It’s really the second and third parties who are marking it up and selling it to people. It is a business, just like it is with the poaching of orchids from the wild and something that should be taken very seriously. But, unfortunately, the penalties are very minimal, but it definitely impacts the ecosystem from which they are taken.”
For Georgia, the challenge has been finding people to help him with the work in the greenhouse as well as certain day-to-day tasks. He has also had some minor difficulty with getting people to help with social media and keeping track of the shop’s finances. Along with Native Exotics, Georgia also works part-time at a lab at Cornell. This allows him to learn more about the food web of the nepenthes as these plants, which have adapted to different styles of living.
“Some organisms have figured out how to live within the traps to the digested enzymes that break down the process of the pitcher,” Georgia said. “If you picture the traps as a stomach, that’s actually what they are, and a modified leaf that grows at the end of the leaf itself. They attract everything from insects to small mammals. Some have been documented to capture mice, rats, or even shrews, which is another small mammal. [...] Some of the pitchers have been shown to grow to the size of a one or two-liter soda bottle.”